Tag Archives: Travel

Kamui Mintara – The Playground of the Gods: Part One

Alpine wildflowers. I like them. I stop to photograph them. I know a few of their names. And now I was standing amidst the rugged rocky peaks of a volcano complex in the centre of Hokkaido for the purported reason of having come to see wildflowers. Not the volcano. Not the steaming fumaroles and the sulphureous deposits. Not the dozen or so varieties of volcanic rock. I said I was here to see the wildflowers and was told that my interest in geology was not important to the program. Well, okay then. Let’s check out the wildflowers.


Big Snow Mountain – Taisetsusan. That’s the Japanese name. The aboriginal Ainu people called it Kamui Mintara – the Playground of the Gods. Central Hokkaido is home to some volcanic mountain ranges, and the highest summit of them all is Asahidake – 2,291 metres – in the Taisetsusan Mountains. The whole area is a remarkable natural wonder: a volcanic plateau with soaring cliffs replete with cascading ribbons of white water, hot springs, volcanic cones and craters, noxious volcanic gases, and beautiful ponds. It is also host to vast alpine meadows, and from base to summit, there are approximately some 270 species of wildflowers.

I was asked to be there for an upcoming episode of Journeys in Japan, my fourth appearance on the program. Previously I had climbed mountains on Yakushima and scrambled up waterfalls in the Kita Alps. Adventure and new challenges had been the order in the past. This time I was going to explore alpine meadows and learn about flowers. I was excited about the trip! There was the possibility of climbing Asahidake, which would have been my 35th Hyakumeizan. There was also word of a species of flower that grew only near a bubbling mud pit and nowhere else in the world. Visions of a Japanese Rotorua came to mind. In addition, part of the itinerary included seeking out the Ezo brown bear, the higuma. For me, the wildflowers would be but a pleasant bonus.

Taisetsusan’s summer weather is a wreck. High peaks stand above the pastoral hills and fields where cows graze, and those peaks trap every current of moist air passing through, forcing them up into the cooler air and causing clouds and rain to frequently hold parties at the higher elevations. A playground indeed. For the weather Gods. Our director had been there three weeks earlier, running the course that he’d planned for the program. Running through fog and strong winds and not seeing a damn thing! “Why did I come here?” he reflected as he told us about his reconnaissance trip. “It was just training for running in the mountains.”

The weather Gods were there for the summer break. The first night it rained in the Sounkyo Canyon where we stayed in a hotel. But the sun came out in the morning and we rode the gondola and chair lift under blue skies. True to mountain weather form, however, as we made our way up the trail to Kurodake, clouds drifted in and erased the view.

The flowers were blooming. It was no surprise to see many varieties of blossoms or even to see large swaths of alpine flowers. But as the guide began pointing out species after species, I began to appreciate why Taisetsusan was known for its flora. 

A bush-like plant called ukon’utsugi was particularly interesting. A tube like blossom in pale yellow, it had a clever method of communicating to insects about its pollen. The inside bottom of the blossom was a golden orange colour, which is easily seen by visiting insects. This is like an open for business sign, saying, “Pollen here!” Once the pollen has been removed, the colour changes to a deep red – “Pollen sold out!” In this way, insects can soon find where to get pollen and the plant can ensure insects don’t waste time searching depleted pollen stores.

The clouds enveloped the mountain. At the summit, I smiled and shook hands with my guide in a grey shroud. To our surprise, another film crew was there. With two cameras and larger staff, the NHK Hyakumeizan TV program crew were also covering a story on Taisetsusan.

It was then that the clouds began to part and views across the highland between the peaks were revealed to us. Cameras were parked on tripods and the precious moment was captured. The clouds played a game of conceal-and-reveal a couple of times more before we began to move on, descending toward the Kurodake shelter and tent site. Now we were heading into the world of alpine vegetation. I did not anticipate how interesting it was going to be.

9M ウコンウツギ

Ukon’utsugi – Weigela middendorffiana

17M チシマキンバイソウ

Chishima kinbaisou – Trollius riederianus

19M チシメフウロウ

Chishima fuurou – Geranium erianthum

44M 黒岳より北鎮岳

View from the summit of Kurodake – Hokuchindake (centre) and Ryoundake (right)


Little Inaka

When my son was born in 2008, I still had a fair bit of freedom. It was a good year for earnings from photography and writing and I was beginning in earnest to complete my book project on the Japan Alps. When I was away, my wife took our infant son to her parents’ home.

In 2010 things changed. My wife became pregnant with our second child and it was not so easy for her to bring our growing boy to her parents’ house as there was not enough space and he was restless. I wrapped up my book project a little early, managed a few more hikes and a trip abroad to attend my sister’s wedding. After that, my adventures seemed to have come to an end, at least for the time being.

Not wanting to give up photography entirely, I began a project of shooting locally. I purchased a used DSLR and chose some places that were within reach. I would wake up in the early morning and go out somewhere to shoot, trying to make it home by 7:30 to help get ready for the day. Three years later, my son entered elementary school and I had to be home by 6:45. We moved house and autumn brought later sunrises. My three years of early morning photography were also temporarily wrapped up. I had, however, amassed a few hundred photographs or more and set about putting them into a book. The result is this: Little Inaka.

The locations are the Sakitama Burial Mounds in Gyoda City, Hatcho Park in Yoshimi Town, a rural area in Higashi Matsuyama City, and a rural area straddling Ina Town and Ageo City. All places are in Saitama Prefecture, Japan.


A tumulus at the Sakitama Burial Mound Park in Gyoda City

Winter on Yakushima: Chapter Six – The White Mountain

Once more the moon peaked out from behind a dark and cloudy sky. The wind continued the swish through the forest canopy like waves over a coral reef. Though I didn’t feel it, someone noted the temperature was -8 degrees Celsius.

We stood outside the hut in the pre-dawn darkness with our headlights awakening the whiteness of the snow. It was time to climb the mountain.

Mr. Koga led the way with me following. Next came Mr. Ichino, Mr. Mori, and Mr. Kurihara, and behind them the two remaining porters who had scouted the route ahead the previous day. We tramped through the snow past the himeshara forest I had stopped at the day before and up the slope to the first viewpoint. As daylight strengthened we clicked off our headlights. At the first viewpoint, the sun was up over the ocean somewhere and the clouds were lifting enough so that we could see the intense golden glimmer of dawn on the water far below and in the distance. It was a magical moment of light.


We pressed on to the second viewpoint though there were only the skirts of the mountains to see. Though the clouds prevailed, I did not lose heart. The weather forecast promised clearing skies later in the morning. It was still early.

As I had seen the day before, winter still maintained a grip on the scenery around here, and as we moved further along the route and higher up the mountain, the world around us grew more frigid. Trees were thickly encrusted in feather rime and snow covered the ground to nearly two metres we were told. At one point we had to enter a natural shelter made by overhanging ice-coated branches. Then we came out on an exposed slope and in the blue-grey light we found ourselves standing in a world of bizarrely sculpted ice forms. Trees were entirely covered in thick rime and the shakunage were only distinguishable by the few curled leaves that stuck out from large chunks of roughly chiselled lumps of ice. Feather rime covered everything like a growth in stagnant water.



Along this ridge an enormous exposed knob of granite stood like an observatory dome. Its visibility changed as the clouds shifted. Then sunlight suddenly illuminated the dome. We lifted our eyes skyward and saw a hole in the clouds. The sun beamed through. Mr. Mori wanted to capture some of the scenery here, so I was afforded an opportunity to do the same. The sun came and went and the landscape changed with the light, mysterious and alien in the clouds, dazzling and fantastic in the sunlight.


We ascended a rise and reached the top. The granite needle on Okinadake loomed in the distance. Miyanouradake remained cloaked. But the weather was without a doubt changing and the alpine world of Yakushima in its winter glory was becoming exposed before us.


But quite literally, we were not out of the woods yet. Our route led us through thickets of trees and brush that probably formed a canopy over the trail in summer but now with two metres of snow, the trees clutched at the route, forcing us to crawl on our bellies in order to pass through. On three occasions, I had to lower my head so far that the top of my tripod, which was fastened separately from the legs, slid out from the elastic straps and landed in the snow. Each time I had to remove my pack and secure it once more, each time with more effort than the last. Crawling through these tunnels of branches was amusing at first, an added obstacle to our adventure, but it soon grew tedious and each subsequent barrier of trees made my mind weary for the forthcoming exercise.

Fortunately, we were ascending the mountain and the trees grew shorter, the depth of the snow overcoming their height and eliminating the need for us to wriggle under the branches. At last we were walking through the soft, dry snow under a brilliant sun and deep blue sky. I should mention that all this time we did not use crampons or snowshoes but instead had these simple rubber soles fitted onto our boots. The soles had small knobs of metal and were intended for use on icy city sidewalks. The were perfectly sufficient for our entire mountaineering experience on Yakushima, right from the first icy steps to the Jomon Sugi to the summit of the highest peak.

Now out in the open, Mr. Mori wanted to shoot Mr. Koga and me in different settings and from various angels as we climbed. Sometimes I was free to raise the camera for a few record shots. Sometimes I just waited and chatted with Mr. Koga. At one moment we were given the signal to start walking. As my feet pressed into the snow, I was suddenly overcome with an overwhelming feeling of contentment and joy. To be here in this wind-swept, snow-covered landscape with only the alpine scenery all around was such a feeling of elation. I was in my happy place, as they say.


Looking back to the TV crew as we were filmed climbing the mountainside from a distance.

Looking back to the TV crew as we were filmed climbing the mountainside from a distance.

Feeling overjoyed to be in such surroundings

Feeling overjoyed to be in such surroundings

Miyanouradake comes out from the clouds

Miyanouradake comes out from the clouds

We were nearing the summit and by now we could barely tell granite boulder from frozen bush. Everything was a hard white lump of ornate frost on a soft bed of dry granular snow. Nagatadake watched our progress and Miyanouradake awaited our arrival with indifference. The clouds were gone. Only in the lower elevations over the sea did clouds still drift about lazily.

And then we were there. The final steps and Mr. Koga and I stood on the summit. The first time I had been here everything was a vibrant summer green with huge grey boulders and the blue of the sky and the ocean. I now stood in a white mountainous environment where the grey boulders looked darker in contrast with the snow and frost. But what fine weather we had been given once again. For the second time, I stood on the highest summit of the rainy island of Yakushima and basked in sunshine. The shrine in the cleft was visited again and we camera wielders set about our business. After what seemed like a leisurely time compared to the previous visit’s day-long rush, we were retracing our footprints in the snow.




The route back was very different because the heat of the sun was rapidly changing the scenery. Among the trees, chunks of frost were breaking free and crashing to the ground. The branches were dripping and bare where earlier in the day they had been frozen white. I could not help but reflect on the weather of the last few days and consider how perfectly timed our climb had been. The day before we arrived, the temperatures had reached their lowest of the season with frost being seen near the coast. The day we started out had been rainy below but snowy above, and the day after, moisture-laden clouds had crossed the high mountains and their cargo of airborne water vapour had frozen to the trees and rocks. The sun had finally appeared to melt the ice but only as we descended. We could not have arrived on any better day in February!



Descending was easier as we slid and skittered down the slopes which were becoming like wet crushed ice. The tree tunnels were still a struggle to pass through but the going was faster on the downslope. At the second viewpoint we stepped out onto an exposed outcropping and took in the view of Okinadake and Miyanouradake. There was still time left and our shooting was done for the day, so Mr. Koga and I remained behind for another hour to photograph the late afternoon scenery, even though the sun was setting behind the mountains. The sunrise view should be spectacular I postulated. Unfortunately, sunrise was at 7:00 and we were to start on the trail down at that time. Even if I prepared all my belongings and rushed to the first viewpoint to capture the sunrise I would still not be back until around 8:00. I wanted to ask but I felt I couldn’t. No matter. Nature had bestowed me with more than enough gifts already on this trip. And there were still four more days to spend on this island with three or four more points of interest to see.

Okinadake and Miyanouradake

Okinadake and Miyanouradake


Mr. Koga and I at last descended and returned to the shelter. Once again, we all spent an evening of food, a few sips of whiskey and potato wine, and stories of past adventures. I tried to enjoy every moment because I did not know when I would have the opportunity to experience days like this again.

On Location: Yakushima – Day Three (The Goshinzan Festival)

She stood with cell phone in hand, head down and hair over her face, in the shade of the concrete wall that lined the mouth of the river like braces meant to keep the shoreline straight. The shadows of Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Ohkawa stretched across the street, reaching over to the shrine from which the sacred water was to be borne forth and carried to the festival some several hundred metres away. They stood on the concrete wall busily recording the late afternoon sun as it dipped low over the sea. The heat from the direct light was still uncomfortably strong, though some clouds were beginning to fill the western sky. I tossed a glance at the young woman who stood transfixed to her phone. She seemed to completely ignore the camera and sound man who were filming scenery for possible fill in spots on the program. As for the lone foreigner, she looked my way once, and I turned toward the shrine, camera in hand, and went to seek some of those long evening shadows.


After some quiet time of waiting, a truck pulled up and the men in white from the mountains came out. Mr. Hatanaka spoke with his contact from the shrine. Soon the parade of Shinto robes emerged from the shrine, one person bearing the heavy wooden container filled with the sacred water from the mountain. There was some hasty direction given to me to follow the men. At one point, I had to ask someone about the festival, but this idea seemed hastily put together as it wasn’t clear at first when I should ask. The men paused by a grove of trees along the seashore and it seemed some rite was being performed. Nothing was explained to me. Only when the men continued on their way was I given the signal to follow and shoot pictures. Sometimes they stopped or paused and I was ahead. Other times I was following them like a stray dog hoping to catch a dropped morsel. What I had been told would happen and what ultimately happened didn’t quite match up. I just kept an eye on Mr. Hatanaka for direction.


At the festival site drums were already being beaten. People milled about a grassy field which appeared to be part of some seaside park. A tower was erected in the middle and adorned with red and white bands of cloth. Long flags on bamboo poles indicated that this was the Goshinzan festival, which is held here in Miyanoura Town every summer when typhoons and foul weather leave the town alone. Tables had been set up in a square shape with one end open so that the Shinto priest could stand in the middle. Fruit and other items – presumably there for the rites – were placed on the tables. The water was brought in and the young men lined up near the tables while the elder priest entered the open square. Many officials sat facing the tables, the priest with his back to them. It looked like it was meant to be formal but there was an air of festivity, people laughing and exchanging remarks with smiles on their faces.


I looked around and shot scenes that I thought might be of some importance. The young woman with the cell phone passed by with a tall boyfriend in tow. I guess she had been waiting for him to show up. Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Ohkawa were capturing scenes of the festival while Mr. Uzui stood by with Mr. Hatanaka. After some scrolls of paper had been read and some brief speeches made, it was time to get to the main phase of the festival. Once again it was show time.


The boys in white had ascended to the tower platform and the sacred water was brought up. Branches were dipped in the water and then waved over the expectant crowd. People gathered close to receive a few drops of precious cleansing mountain water. The water gives long life to the trees of Yakushima and so it is believed that if the townsfolk get a few drops they too will live and long and healthy life. I had to get sprayed a little too and then explain to the camera about it.

Next up was a giant fire starter. In the centre of the tower was a thick pole that stood vertically and was wrapped with a long rope. The ends of the rope were stretched out with one end to the sea and the other end to the mountains. Elementary school students and anyone else interested in participating lined up along the rope and picked it up. I came in on the mountain side between some younger students and older students. Someone on the tower called “Umi ike!” and all us mountain people let the rope go slack and walked toward the tower as the umi side pulled on the rope. “Yama ike!” was the cue for us yama side folks to grab the rope and haul as hard as we could toward the mountains. This pulling from side to side caused the centre pole to rotate this way and that, essentially working like a gigantic spinning stick for starting a fire. Whether or not this traditional activity was actually effective at starting a fire I do not know. But eventually the rope could be dropped and someone held up a torch and lit other torches held by the same young men in Shinto robes.

When our tug-of-war fire starter had ended, many students turned to say, “hello,” to me, some of them having already pointed out to their friends that an “Amerika-jin” was there. I haven’t been called an American by Japanese children for many years. It seems around Saitama most kids know that a white man does not necessarily equate an American citizen. In that way, Yakushima really was off the beaten track. I shook hands with the children and said, “Nice to meet you,” and “Good job.” This caused a small stampede as many of my rope-pulling yama team mates joined the crush for a handshake with the foreigner. It was fun and I was glad to be able to speak a few words of English to the kids who tried to repeat my two phrases.


The final stage of the event was the beach bonfire. Archers from the local archery circle took turns shooting flaming arrows at a large white sheet that had been doused with flammable liquid. The sheet was in the centre of a house-shaped pile of wood that was topped with pine boughs. The arrows were meant to ignite the sheet and start the wood pile burning. This was the traditional way to welcome the gods of the mountains to the seaside town in hopes that they would bestow good favour upon the townsfolk.

Each of the three archers shot four arrows and two arrows struck their targets. Unfortunately, the sheet did not ignite, and two robed men were sent over with torches to get the fire started. Drums beat in the background as the flames spread and grew, at last heating the wood to combustible temperature. The fire would burn until dawn I was told. We were not planning to stay that late, however. We’d been up since 3:30 and had been on the move most of the day. It was time to return to the hotel and get some much needed rest.


On Location: Yakushima – Day Three (Cleansing Water)

“I think you should take something out of your pack. It’s too heavy.”

That’s what Mr. Hatanaka had told me before we had come up the lower slopes of the mountain to shoot the scene where I meet the young men collecting water for the Goshinzan Festival. Now I was looking at my pack and thinking that if I took out the camera bag I could reduce the weight considerably, but the pack would look deflated. The director had given instructions to the crew and came over to me.

“Did you take something out?”

“If I take something out, the pack will obviously look different from when I was hiking.”

“But I think it’s too heavy for you.” Why was he concerned about me carrying the pack now? I had just had it on my back for 20 kilometres across the mountains.

“Are we walking far?” I inquired, doubting that it was so necessary to lighten the load.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Hatanaka replied with a shrug.

“Will I be carrying it a long time?” I asked. I was trying to find out the reason for his suggestion.

“I don’t know!” This time his reply expressed impatience. It was difficult to know whether he was really becoming agitated or it was just his well-learned and very well delivered line in English. Because his job had him traveling overseas frequently, Mr. Hatanaka spoke English almost flawlessly, at least at a conversation level, and though he had a distinct accent, he spoke certain sentences very much like a native speaker, with all the right inflections and stressed syllables. Though I had felt in his voice before that what he had said was not for debate, this was the first time I felt that I was possibly testing some limit. At the same time, I couldn’t understand why he would be impatient. If I had to remove something from my pack it would take a moment, so why not just go with the pack as it was? Part of the problem was that although I had been given a schedule of our shooting plans, things were being amended on the fly and even though I often overheard the directions to the crew things weren’t always explained to me directly until some plan was put into action or unless I asked. At some point, I just gave up looking at the schedule and just sat back waiting to be told what we were going to do next.

“I’ll just take the pack as it is.”

“Are you sure?” The switch from a remark of impatience to a remark suggesting sympathy once again had me wondering if he wasn’t just really good at delivering lines in English with all the right inflections, a perfect mimic of what he had heard before.

“I’ve carried it so far. I can carry it a little more.” I smiled reassuringly at him.

The crew had followed a nearly invisible path through some deciduous trees that grew in the cleared area next to large concrete retainer. These concrete barriers can be found on mountainsides across Japan, serving to hold back rocks and fallen logs that heavy rains would otherwise wash down the ravines. They were there to slow the otherwise rapid erosion process.

A group of young men were dressed in white robes and an elder man was there in attire of a Shinto priest. We were here to film the scene where I encounter the men scooping pure mountain water for the festival. According to the script, I was to ask them what they were doing and then follow them to the site of the festival. After they had filled a large round wooden container with water and placed it on a rack designed to carry it on one young man’s back, I went up and ask the last person in the entourage what they were doing and he replied that they were preparing for the Goshinzan Festival. Then the group in white went over to a pick-up truck and clambered into the back and were driven back down the mountainside.

Collecting Yakushima's very clean water

Collecting Yakushima’s very clean water

Aquarius - the water bearer carries water for the festival

Aquarius – the water bearer carries water for the festival

We hung about the creek for a while, the crew shooting a few nature scenes while I was trying to capture a small whirlpool in the clear water. In a deep pool, water was likely draining out through the stones and somewhere coming out on the other side of the retaining wall. The vortex was so perfect and the distortions of the stones at the bottom were so beautiful in the swirling curves of the water. Mr. Hatanaka had shaken his head at my photographing rocks. Now he observed me shooting only water. I think he didn’t understand exactly. Maybe he was worried about the photos he would select for use in the program – would there be only shots of rocks and water?

Vortex - a whirlpool in Yakushima's mountain water

Vortex – a whirlpool in Yakushima’s mountain water

Kikuchi-san had explained to me on the mountain that most mineral water available in the stores has a hardness rating of 40 to 80. Yakushima’s mountain water is rated at 10. I guessed with all the granite rock, there were very few soluble salts and minerals to harden the water. Kikuchi-san had said the water was great for cooking rice or making miso. I said it must also be good for washing one’s hair.

We returned to the hotel afterwards and had a bit of time before the festival was to begin. My hiking pants looked terrible with marks left where water and sweat had dried. It was still very hot, so I took my pants into the shower and gave them a good rinsing, and then hung them outside the window in my room. After taking a shower myself, I killed time in my room pant-less because they were the only pair I had taken with me. I re-organized my things and prepared my camera for the festival. The pants didn’t completely dry in time for our departure but they were dry by the time we reached a shrine near the site of the festival.

Now I was going to experience what a festival is like on Yakushima.

On Location: Yakushima – Day Three (Arboreal World)


We were in Yakusugi Land and the next important stop was the Wilson Stump. The English botanist Ernest Wilson had found the stump during a visit to the island in 1914 and his account of the stump introduced the great Yakusugi trees to the world. For me, the history of the tree’s death is very interesting. The tree was ordered to be cut down by the famous daimyo, Hideyoshi Toyotomi and the wood was to be used for the construction of a great temple, which was begun in 1586. The proposed Hokoji was to give Kyoto a temple bigger and more impressive than the Todaiji in Nara, and it was to house a statue of the Buddha that would be bigger than the one in Todaiji. The temple took ten years to construct and it was opened with great pomp and ceremony, with 1,000 Buddhist priests present. A year later, a great earthquake toppled the temple. Reconstruction took place, but a careless worker set fire to the structure and it burned down. For a long time the temple was left but at last the order came to rebuild it again, this time by Hideyoshi’s son as the patriarch had since passed away. Reconstruction was completed, but again an earthquake collapsed the temple and after it was reconstructed yet again, it was struck by lightning and set ablaze twice, the second time completely razing the ill-fated structure to the ground. If you were superstitious, you might believe that there was a curse upon the wood of the Yakusugi.

Inside the Wilson Stump

Inside the Wilson Stump

The tree is believed to have been 3,000 years old. The hollow inside of the stump is ten tatami mats in size (the average bedroom size in Japan being six tatami mats). From one corner of the stump, when you look up, the opening takes on a heart shape. The younger trees around the stump (kosugi, as they are not over 1,000 years of age yet) grow up straight and tall, nearly 50 metres high. Kikuchi-san explained that deeper in the valley the trees are protected from the wind and can grow like this. The Jomon sugi is higher up the slope and exposed to the sometimes strong winds that blow over the island, so it and its neighbours don’t stick their necks up too high. We would be reminded of this a little further down the mountainside.

Light in the forest near the Wilson Stump

Light in the forest near the Wilson Stump

Kikuchi-san also offered a lecture to the camera about the wheel tree (Trochodendron aralioides) or yamaguruma. This tree can often be found hugging the Yakusugi with its roots. The tree appears to be clinging to the cedars and in some cases the grip of the wheel tree is sunken into the softer wood of the cedar. Kikuchi-san stopped before “The Strangling Tree” for his monologue and pointed out how the wheel tree appeared to be choking or strangling the cedar. He explained, however, that the wheel tree was not harming the cedar and that it was not a parasite leaching nutrients from the host tree. Wheel trees with their radial-spreading leaves require sunlight but in the shadows of the conifers the saplings can’t get enough light. So many of the dispersed seeds land on branches and in crooks of dual trunks where there are not only nutrients in the detritus of fallen leaves and needles, but also closer access to sunlight. The trees grow and as they do they send their roots down into the soil, holding on to the cedar trunks and “squeezing” them as both trees grow in size.

Currently, only one species of wheel tree exists in the world. There used to be seven species but the other six have become extinct.

The wheel tree is not the only species of plant that takes advantage of the sunward accommodation provided by the Yakusugi. Mosses and ferns are the obvious occupants you would expect to find but there are also a species of rhododendron and mountain ash or rowan as well as other plants whose seeds might find a comfortable cradle in which to germinate. A poster on the wall in the stairway of my hotel bore the detailed illustration of a Yakusugi and all the different plants growing from the hanging gardens.

We also stopped at an opening in the forest canopy that had until recently been filled up by the Okina sugi. Previously the second largest of all the Yakusugi, the Okina sugi fell in a September storm a couple of years ago (remember those strong winds?). Now a huge hole known as a gap was open above and sunlight bathed the forest floor. On the now rotting wood of the ancient tree, new sprouts were beginning the next phase of forest life.

The gap left by the fallen Okina sugi

The gap left by the fallen Okina sugi

Mr. Hatanaka wanted a shot of me photographing a sprout in the sunlight to help illustrate the recycling of the forest. A tiny plant still bearing its seed casing was the perfect specimen and I had my macro gear ready. However, when I carefully placed one tripod leg over the ropes protecting this fragile piece of forest and set it gingerly on the bare wood of the Okina sugi, alarm was raised and several voices at once spoke out in objection. “You mustn’t step over the ropes.” Though I always try to respect the ropes and what they are protecting (the nature or me), I often permit a tripod leg over the ropes if it is carefully placed on a rock or piece of wood and not harming any small plants. But here among the guides (two others had come up with clients), the tourists, and the TV crew who had to follow and respect the rules in the name of NHK’s good reputation, even a tripod leg entering a “humans keep out” zone of a UNESCO site was treated as a sacrilege and we were quickly encouraged by the director to move on to another suitable location.

Getting that shot of newly sprouted leaves in sunlight was a challenge we could not easily meet. Though sun came in here and there, there were no ideal subjects. And when a suitable specimen had been found at the side of the trial, the tourist traffic had greatly increased and people were passing us like trains of refugees. Or more like pilgrims as they were all making the climb up to the Jomon sugi.

Getting down proved to be a test of patience. We were in a hurry but every two to four metres of path gained we had to step aside and let the climbing groups pass. These groups included anywhere from 5 to a dozen people. At the top of a long flight of steps we waited for over 30 people to come up. As each small group began climbing the steps, another group would arrive and begin climbing. At last we were able to descend, this pattern up hurry and a wait nearly driving me to distraction. Kikuchi-san remained at ease. The climbing parties had priority – simple as that. We could not possibly go any faster.

All along the way down, my eye caught site of the akahoya – a layer of red clay that coats most of the island. As mentioned already in a recent post, this clay is of volcanic origin and was deposited during the explosive eruption of the Kikai Caldera volcano 7,300 years ago. I found what I was looking for and pried lose a chunk of pumice that fit over my palm. I showed Mr. Sasaki and Mr. Ohkawa and asked Kikuchi-san to explain to them about the eruption. Actually, I had poked at a piece of pumice while climbing in the sub-alpine zone the previous day but at the time it didn’t occur to me at all that I was probing the akahoya. Only now when it was fresh on my mind did I realize that the “rotten granite” I puzzled over was actually porous volcanic rock. I could have smacked my forehead!

Our last stop was the old village site. Following the old trolley rails that used to bring the cut wood of the cedars to the coast, we came to the historic site of the village that used to house the woodsmen and their families. The schoolyard and the stone foundation of the school was all that remained. In 1970, the last class had graduated from the elementary school and the village buildings were dismantled. The cutting of trees on Yakushima had come to an end two years before the first Earth Day. Already the priceless value of the great trees had become appreciated and the trees protected. And it would not be for another 24 years before parts of the island would become a World Heritage Site.

The flying camera flies into the old schoolyard

The flying camera flies into the old schoolyard

After a few shots around here (where the sun baked down upon our exposed heads), Our shooting party began to break up. I walked with Kikuchi-san while the others broke off in small groups after speaking with Mr. Hatanaka. We would all meet up again at the parking lot where the taxi van would be waiting for us.

The railway that brought cedar wood from the mountains to the coast

The railway that brought cedar wood from the mountains to the coast

Rails passing between granite walls

Rails passing between granite walls

Looking down from the rail bridge

Looking down from the rail bridge

Passing a large exposed slope of granite, Kikuchi-san and I noted the parched and withered looking sundew plants and mosses. Only a few steps away water trickled from the shade between cracks in the rocks. How cruel for a plant that lives on a rock face usually moistened with water to suffer this drought. For with the sun baking down on the rock, the surface life indeed reflected drought circumstances. Thankfully for those hardy enough to survive, that was all to change in abut 40 hours.

Desert Storm – Part Two

A Brief Encounter with Zion National Park

The thousand-metre high cliffs of Navajo Sandstone in Zion National Park had been familiar to me in photographs since I was in junior high school. Landmarks such as the Patriarchs, the West Temple, and the Great White Throne often showed up in books of natural wonders of the western United States and in photo publications I enjoyed. Zion was appropriately named because it was in all respects for me sacred ground. Here was where several chapters in the long history of Mother Earth were opened up to read in spectacular cliffs, canyons, buttes, and caps. In addition, here was the hallowed ground where so many great landscape photographers of the past and present set down their tripods and tripped their shutters.

From Saint George, Utah, the rocks beside the road were mostly red and weathered into peculiar sculptures that could resemble the petrified organs of some mammoth beast trapped in the strata of the earth. Turning off the I-15 at Hurricane, we left the fantastic red rock landscapes behind and drove past flat-topped table lands, many with layers of black basalt on top. Soon the West Temple came into view again loomed ever nearer. Then the road snuggled up close to the hills at Rockville and Springdale. I marvelled at the huge weathered blocks of sandstone that were tumbled and jammed into the small stream channels carving into the rock. Then at last the mountain-like red cliffs of the Watchman took a chunk out of the sky. It had been cloudy all morning but now the clouds were breaking into long tracks and moving to the north. I had heard of four consecutive days of rain up this way but it seemed the weather was turning around in our favour.

There was a $25 entrance fee for our vehicle but that covered all three of us too. A sign had said that the visitor centre parking lot was full; however, we found an open stall in the overflow parking. Though we had left at 7:30 it was now around noon. We had stopped for gas and a rest in Saint George but it had still taken us three and a half hours in total to reach the park. We decided to take the shuttle bus that ran up the canyon. The system was really convenient. The bus was free to ride and there were nine stops along the way including the visitor centre. One could get off the bus at any stop and then board another bus later and either continue up the canyon or catch a bus heading back down. The buses ran every six to eight minutes and ran from just after sunrise to after 9 pm. The buses all ran on propane, and the implementation of a shuttle bus system was meant to eliminate the chains of private vehicles belching exhaust into the canyon as the tourist traffic had increased significantly since the 1960s.

(It is ironic to think that in the 1960s and early ’70s, the Sierra Club was producing very large format photo art books, many of the landscapes of the Colorado Plateau, in an effort to create public awareness of the need to preserve these beautiful and delicate environments. The result of greater public awareness was that more and more people came by car to see the parks and as in the case of Zion Canyon, the huge increase in vehicular traffic actually helped to deteriorate conditions in the park. Of course the Sierra Club is not responsible for this but I am sure their books did capture the minds of many people who otherwise might not have gone.)

We boarded a bus and as we drove past the red cliffs with white caps a recording played, explaining about the sights around and the history of the park and canyon. We went straight to the last stop at the Temple of Sinawava and got off. The North Fork of the Virgin River comes out from the narrow canyon walls here and winds around a sandstone tower known as the Pulpit.

The Pulpit

Knowing my parents were not intending to stay long, I dashed to the river side and set up my view camera. It takes time to set up the camera and get the focus adjustments right, so I rushed while trying to make sure I got a good composition as well. Then I tried some 6×4.5 shots of the cliffs and the Pulpit and finally shot some 35mm scenes as well. After 25 minutes I found my parents sitting on a bench at the bus stop. “Did you get some good shots?” my father asked as he always does. I replied that I think I did but was only able to make maybe three or four compositions in total. We rode the bus to the stop at Big Bend and again I hurried to get something exposed on my film. We got out one more time at the Court of the Patriarchs stop and I dashed up to the viewpoint only to find it unsatisfactory. My parents came slowly up the path while I found what looked like a trail leading up higher. Ignoring the beginnings of a mild asthma attack (I always get these when I suddenly start running or walking quickly up steep trails) I ran up the sun-baked clay slope and soon found a clear patch where I could look over the trees to the three great towers of sandstone that were Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a smaller tower known as Mount Moroni. All three cameras were put through the works before I packed up and went down to the bus stop where my parents were waiting again.

Two of the three Patriarchs - Abraham on the left and Isaac in the centre - and Mount Moroni on the right.

In truth, though the scenery of Zion was astounding in its beauty, I was finding it difficult to be truly astounded. Perhaps because I already knew of what to expect I felt I was only seeing in real life what I had seen so often in photographs. But I think it was more so because I didn’t have the chance to really set foot on the rock and soil and take a moment to simply observe the naturally beauty and let it stir me into action. Before long we were back at the visitor centre and looking through the books and various souvenirs. My parents bought a book/CD/DVD set for my son and were searching for something for my wife. They also bought a small photo book of Zion landscapes. I grabbed a Utah Rocks T-shirt with pictures of five of Utah’s most famous places for naturally sculpted rock and a calendar by David Pettit who was pictured on the back using the same Tachihara 4×5 that I have.

We sat outside under a clear blue sky and ate lunch, me with one eye on my watch because we were planning to go to Bryce Canyon next. It was when we had finished lunch my mom said that she felt there was no time to head on to Bryce Canyon and that we should head back to Las Vegas. It was only around four o’clock and I had heard it was only an hour more to Bryce. Sunset was just at seven. We still had time. But she said they had seen so much in Zion already and there was a long drive back to Vegas. If I really wanted to see Bryce I could go by myself the next day. I was in a way surprised that they could just stop like that and talk about heading back so early. For me, it was that I had just shaken hands with Zion and exchanged a few pleasantries but had not yet begun any intimate conversation. And Bryce had been a dream destination for me since my elementary school days when I enjoyed looking through geology books. But I understood that the day with my parents was meant to be a day with them and not my own day of exploration. The arrangement was that I would strike out on my own the next day and they had offered to lend me the rental car so that I wouldn’t have to rent my own.

After a bit of discussion, my father seemed to be in favour of trying for Bryce. My mother agreed without overt reluctance and we pressed on up to Canyon Junction where the road turned east to Bruce Canyon. Here we were immediately confronted by a road closure. A construction worker came over and explained the road was closed. We asked if there was another way to get to Bryce Canyon. He told us that we should go back to Hurricane and take the route north to Cedar City. From there we could get over to Bryce Canyon. I checked the map and saw that it was going to take a fair bit of extra time to circle all the way round like that. If we were lucky we’d get there around sunset and then have a very long drive back again. Instantly my desire to reach Bryce dissipated and I was all for heading back to Las Vegas without regret. There was nothing we could do. But those red towers of Zion Canyon reminded me that I still had a purpose were I to stay.

We stopped in Springdale for a moment and checked out a shop selling rocks and a photo gallery shared the building. I went in and saw on the walls some incredible photographs of Zion Canyon and some of the local semi-arid landscape scenery. The photographer was a young guy perhaps in his late twenties named Steffan (www.steffangallery.com). I asked him about his camera and he told me that he used a Wistia 4×5 and also a medium format camera sometimes too. His film preferences were Fujichrome Velvia and Ectachrome too. How wonderful it was to find another photographer who still pursued landscape photography with film and in large format too. As antiquated and almost obsolete as shooting film with a view camera may seem in today’s modern digital age, there were still professionals who wouldn’t abandon their 4x5s. Since I was planning to return in the morning and spend the day I asked his advice about where I should go. At first I wanted to visit the Emerald Pools and make the climb up to Angels Landing but his photographs of the Narrows – a place farther up the canyon where the 1,000-metre high cliffs closed in to within five metres apart – revived in my mind images of Eliot Porter’s from Glen Canyon, whose cliffs and amphitheatres now lie drowned in the waters of Lake Powell. Stephen totally recommended the hike up to the Narrows but said both the Emerald Pools and Angles Landing would be worth the effort. Likely there would be not enough time for all of them. We discussed his forthcoming book, printing processes, and the principles of capturing great images that didn’t require lots of post processing before I left his gallery and collected my parents for the ride back.

A short distance west of Springdale, looking southeast.

So, we turned around, and as the sun was sinking in the west and the sweet light was just beginning to touch up the landscape and photographers were just stirring from their mid-day sedentary pursuits, I began the long drive back to Las Vegas without the opportunity to enjoy shooting this unbelievable landscape in the warm light of late afternoon. Being the driver, I forced a few turn outs on local backroads until I found a decent view over sage brush and sand to some mesas in the distance. The landscape began to glow warmly as the sun edged its way toward the horizon. Then we drove on into the gathering evening and into the night. It was 12:30 by the time I got to bed after dinner in Las Vegas and a shower at the resort. My plan, now discussed with my parents, was set. Off to the Valley of Fire State Park at 5 am; leave there around 8:30 and head for Zion; stay until after sunset and drive back to Vegas; and then head over to Red Rock Canyon for the dawn shoot. I fell asleep quickly.